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Indira’s Congress successors showed ‘no interest’, lacked capacity to build party

By Anand K Sahay*

Significant public discussion around the recent defection of Jyotiradatya Scindia and the proto-defection of Sachin Pilot, political dynasts who gained traction early in life primarily on the strength of their proximity to the command headquarters (owing to their lineage), has centred on the state of ennui that is said to envelop the party’s top leadership.
If only Sonia or Rahul Gandhi had acted in time to soothe the fraying nerves of these young men who deserved greater rewards than those they have been bestowed, they would not hobnob with the BJP, runs the refrain.
This is a mistaken notion, for the woes of the Congress party are traceable to complex causes, not Mills and Boon fantasies where dashing young men are meant to be romantically pursued.
In fact, arguments such as these are calculated to whittle the Nehru-Gandhi idea of constitutionalism rooted in rule of law precepts -- with a dose of welfarism. It is interesting that these arguments are being advanced in an era in which the idea of the supremacy of a single religious community seeks to bulldoze policy-making by dismissing old-style constitutionalism rooted in the independence movement. More, they condone the act of defection itself even when it is for no higher purpose than self-aggrandisement.
Even if Pilot’s venture does succeed on the heels of Scindia’s brazenness in backing the ideologues of the communal agenda, a mocking question will remain: “Would there be high-profile turncoats if the Congress still ran the Centre even if it was organisationally hollow and the Gandhis were ditherers?”
That said, it is evident -- and worrying -- that the most striking political feature of our day is the advancing of crypto-fascist majoritarian tendencies while the principal opposition party is in an enervated state. One is in fact not a result of the other, although some -- even in the Congress -- may believe this to be the case.
At the same time, it is also clear that the dominant current trend in which life, culture, politics and society are sought to be steamrollered and homogenised under a repressive one- party order seems impossible to challenge without the strengthening of the main opposition party which alone has nationwide recognition and spread.
Historically, the Congress’ decline owes to two key factors -- and not the ideological or political misconduct attributed to the present set of the Gandhis, though they have been remote and sometimes high-handed in their style, and shown a sophomoric preference for individualism, even dilettantism, rather than collective endeavour.
The first of these is the coming of age by 1967 (when the Congress lost state polls widely across India) of the social forces that were enabled, in the first place, to come into their own through the progressive policies of earlier Congress governments and now sought to carve out separate political spaces for themselves on a regional basis.
Two, in the aftermath of the Emergency and the electoral rout of Indira Gandhi, the rank fecklessness and inability of the ‘pro-class’ anti-Congress and ex-Congress elements led by Morarji Desai and Chandra Shekhar, the socialists (Jaya Prakash Narayan, Madhu Limaye), and the free-wheeling caste parties masquerading as peasant radicals (Charan Singh), in the ruling Janata Party combine to cohere and show the way -- in effect to be a somewhat right-of-centre replacement for the defeated Congress.
These factions, in fact, became jelly before an ideologically determined and crafty competitor, the Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJP’s forerunner), within the Janata Party fold, with the former Congress socialist Jaya Prakash Naryan -- who Nehru had sometime visualised as his successor -- shockingly ending up as a mascot for the RSS-Jana Sangh, presenting anti-Congress politics in independent India its first defining moment.
Gandhis would render real service to their party -- and the country -- if they, in calibrated fashion, midwifed the birth of a new leadership through an internal election process
These structural fault-lines in the political space supplemented the earlier Bonapartist (and patrician) direction imparted to the Congress -- in the run-up to the Emergency (which also had other important causes) -- by the charismatic Indira Gandhi. With her aura undiminished, she triumphantly returned as Prime Minister after the inglorious Janata interregnum, but by then, organisationally, there remained no Congress party to speak of.
Indira was moulded through organisational, political and ideological struggles within the Congress party, but those who carried her family name in politics can be said to be wholly devoid of that distinction. Indira’s Congress successors -- not just her son Rajiv but also others like Congress chief Sitaram Kesri and Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao -- showed no interest in building the Congress organisation, and undoubtedly lacked the capacity for the task.
In the subsequent period, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have proved just as uninterested and inept, although the UPA government of Manmohan Singh under Sonia’s stewardship of the Congress, recorded striking governmental successes unlike Narendra Modi, who has executed only disastrous policies that have harmed India. The ten UPA years yielded an average annual growth rate of nearly eight per cent and pulled 275 million people out of poverty, according to the UN.
The intrinsic value of the Gandhis to the Congress is undeniable. The Congress’ and the Gandhis’ real ideological and political foe, the RSS-BJP, understands this better than anyone, and therefore the Modi government harasses and maligns them without pause.
And yet, it is a counterfeit argument that the Gandhis must always be at the helm for voters to give the Congress a second look. The Gandhis would in fact render real service to their party -- and the country -- if they, in calibrated fashion, midwifed the birth of a new leadership through an internal election process, and then with sincerity offered themselves for service under the new organisational umbrella.
Rahul Gandhi showed the perfect democratic instinct -- in copybook style -- when he stepped aside from the Congress president’s post last year, announcing that no one from his family will succeed him. His fundamental mistake was he didn’t stay put to implement his plan. He now has a second chance. He can help float the Congress (much as economists speak of floating the rupee to let it find its level).
Since Bihar state polls are near, this cannot be done right away. However, the first step can be taken across India immediately -- to launch a massive enrolment drive. This may put life in the party even in Bihar by creating some legitimate political excitement -- and dynamism and hope. There is no other way to challenge the deeply communal project given the deceptive name of “New India”.
---
*Senior journalist based in Delhi. A version of this article first appeared in the "Asian Age"

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